Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil soon began using this synthesizer, and paired it with a similar instrument, the Arp 2600, which made similar but sharper high pitched sounds that sounded a bit more like strings. Another version of the synthesizer, the Arp String Ensemble, would later become popular with an eerie sound of its own, as a very crisp, "futuristic" strings sound. This was popularized by Herbie Hancock, and then used by groups such as Parliament and Ohio Players in songs like "Give up the Funk" and "Sweet Sticky Thing". An example of a Moog paired with that later Arp sound is Norman Connors' "Dindi".
Margouleff and Cecil generally did not use this sound, though there may be one exception, mentioned below. Their programming of the synthesizers always produced richer, fuller sounds. They bundled both the Arps, Moogs and a few other early synths into a huge machine they called "The Original New Timbral Orchestra". The Moog "Theremin" sound together with the Arp really did evoke an orchestra, but with a much "fatter" sound. They produced an album under the group name "Tonto's Expanding Head Band", which contained weird psychedelic instrumentals produced entirely with the machine.
Their sound was finally perfected when they teamed up with the musical genius Stevie Wonder to co-produce and engineer his first four albums after his original contract with Motown expired, and he returned to the label with full creative control. String orchestras; a staple of R&B and especially Motown by that time, were totally dropped, as well as a band, and the Theremin, flute and bass sounds dominated (the horn sounds were used too, but live horns also continued to be used; though never in the same song). The Arp/Moog "Theremin" "orchestra" sound can best be heard in "[Superwoman]Where Were You When I Needed You?", "You And I", "Blame it on the Sun", and "Creepin'". "You've Got it Bad Girl" has both the horn and flute sound (along with the bass), and "Evil", "Living For the City" and "Golden Lady" have the horn sound.
The production duo also worked with the Isley Bros, at the same time, and the Theremin sound is strong on "The Highways of My Life" and "Lover's Eve." They used mostly the Moog 'flute' sound on other songs. (Such as "For the Love of You", which is their entry in the typical Black wedding playlist, as well as Stevie's "You and I". I had omitted both songs from my reception because they mention past relationships, which I did not have. I used the Isleys' "Make Me Say It Again" (i.e. "You're All I need" chorus, and which has a Moog horn sound), as well as other stuff from Stevie).
At the same time, Stevie had developed his own funky style, heavy on another keyboard, the electrochordophone known as the Clavinet (basically an electric version of a harpsichord or clavichord, or according to Wikipedia, an electric guitar using a standard keyboard. Its sound, however is fatter than any guitar). This was the signature sound of "Superstition". Real electric guitars, used by everyone else were omitted as well, at least as main melodic, riff or rhythmic lead instruments. They and other guitars were only used in brief instrumental "solos" in songs or in the background of piano or electric piano chords. (With the exception of "Visions", where an acoustic guitar is dominant along with acoustic bass). The other electrochordophone used heavily was the Fender Rhodes electric piano. This was the signature sound of "You Are the Sunshine of My Life".
Stevie began gradually developing his sound while still under the first contract with Motown. The Clavinet and Rhodes began being used as far back as the For Once in My Life album. The last album of his contract, Where I'm Coming From was a radical departure from the Motown Sound, that he handed to them while quitting the company. It was basically like the next four albums without TONTO (i.e. string orchestras and some guitars in a few songs, though greatly diminished, yet heavy on the Clavinet).
While looking for another company (yet finally returning to Motown when they gave him the artistic freedom he wanted), he ran into the TONTO team, and his and their sound came together in a Wonderful way! Nothing else was like it, anywhere! Just compare Talking Book (the album I grew up on) with other Motown acts at the time.
"Midnight Train to Georgia" is the perennial example of the conventional production style I think of. Like night and day! What does the music basically consist of? A bass, strings and vocals. Then you have a piano and horns in there, basically in the background, and maybe an organ as well. The funk and later disco songs were basically the same way, with just a more prominent bass, electric guitars, and later on, electric bass added. It was really little different from the old Motown Sound of the late 60's.
The Motown and Philly sounds were the largest influence in R&B and the most instrumental (pun originally not intended) in shaping the conventional black production methods. By the late 60's, they had seemingly gained the budgets to include string orchestras in their productions. They seemed to start creeping in a few songs in the middle of the decade, and at the end of the decade, they were used in nearly every song, and completely colored the "sounds". Earlier songs (think "Fingertips" for Stevie; "Shop Around" for the Miracles, etc.) were mostly just percussion, bass, rhythm guitar, piano and horns. So they were already "band" sounds, being heavier on rhythm than on melody, and the orchestras would add more harmony rather than melody. (In classical, they were more melodic).
The orchestras (taken for granted in the 70's) were probably seen as very prestigious, as they became more accessible to all forms of pop music at the time. So they then became a ubiquitous feature in R&B, as well as other forms of pop.
Stevie, with TONTO, produced a "one man band" sound with multilayered rich melody and harmonic riffs with three primary chordophonic instruments— including even the simple acoustic piano, in addition to the two electronically amplified keyboards; and the synthesizer. Here you can see the EIGHT layers of Clavinet on Superstition separated and added back one at a time:
When the TONTO ensemble wasn't used for the background harmony, a nice vocal section was often used, as in "You Are the Sunshine" and "Looking for Another Love". (TONTO and the vocals alternate in "Blame it on the Sun"). Future stars such as Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams could be found in these background vocals.
Stevie would also produce Minnie Riperton's Perfect Angel album, and the two songs he wrote for it: the title track, and "Take A little Trip" are the TONTO sound. The album's main hit, "Lovin You" was an example of the crisper Arp string sound. According to Margouleff, while it was done under their production, the ARP String Ensemble was brought in by musician Odell Brown and recorded at Tom Hidley's Westlake Audio instead of Margouleff & Cecil's Record Plant (http://bg.mixonline.com/ar/audio_minnie_ripertons_lovin/index.htm).
While the talent and musical genius was ultimately Stevie's, these engineers were very good collaborators, knowing how to bring out the best of the young adult superstar. According to biographer John Swenson, they "...nurtured Steve through his first recordings outside Motown's supervision, familiarized him with synthesizer techniques, programmed instruments for him, and provided invaluable critical distance and objective advice on Stevie's recordings. They catalogued in meticulous detail song ideas as Steve put them down, kept them handy for future use, and advised him how they could best be developed. Without them, Steve has failed to this day to match that string of excellence with subsequent releases". (Swenson, Stevie Wonder, Harper & Row, 1986).
The albums Stevie produced for Syreeta used TONTO as well, but for some reason also included orchestras and some other features of conventional production techniques (such as more guitars). But even those sounded light years away from everyone else. They did not mix the strings with the Moog Theremin sound, as others later would. The strings are mixed only with a light Moog horn sound on "How Many Days", and with the Moog bass on the Smokey Robinson written "What Love Has Joined Together". Interesting and rare mix with the familiar "TONTO" bass sound under an orchestra.
Talking Book to me should win a "best album of all time in terms of production technique" award, followed by Fulfillingness First Finale (the final TONTO album) in a close second. These have the most "refined" and "polished" sound of all. Many of the Clavinet, Fender Rhodes and piano compositions were like classical at times, with the same harmonic mathematical genius that made classical so reknown. Like the ascending and descending opening chords of songs like "Looking for Another Love". The grand piano playing in both "You and I", and especially "They Won't Go When I Go" are very classical sounding as well. And with the Arp & Moogs instead of an orchestra, they still sound even more "classical" than later songs with synth or real strings such as "Village Ghetto Land".
Innervisions is the album that was the big Grammy winner, and everyone holds up as the best, but that has the least of the TONTO sound of the four albums, and only one song with the Clavinet (the main hit, "Higher Ground". There may be Clavinet parts in "Jesus Children of America" as well, but it's hard to tell what the "wah-wah"ed sound mixed with the Rhodes really is). Having a bit less of the refinement of the surrounding albums, it seemed to be heading the way of the next era of Stevie's career.
After the four albums, Stevie would abruptly leave TONTO, in the beginning of what became his Songs In the Key of Life project. It is generally regarded as his greatest work. The statement it made (especially the celebration of life from the birth of his first child, etc.) may have been, but musically, comparing it to the previous four albums, there was just something missing. (As even Swenson acknowledges!) It in many ways was like a reversion to before the TONTO period. While he considered himself as "expanding" his sound, the production technique was becoming more conventional, and it sounded a little bit more like everyone else, (though it still had his "genius" creativity).
Studio technicians (such as former tape recordist Gary Olazabal) and later, band members took over as engineers replacing Margouleff and Cecil. TONTO with its Arp&Moog ensemble was dropped, though Moogs are used in some songs like "Saturn" (horns) and "Have a Talk with God" (bass; and for the first time as the dominant instrument-- no Clav, Rhodes or piano under it). Gone for good were the Theremin and flute sounds, and even the bass and horn sound were used much less and would eventually disappear. New synthesizers were on the scene, which sounded more like real strings. This is what you hear on "Village Ghetto Land", "Pastime Paradise" (as the primary instrument), the backgrounds of a couple of other songs, and on the instrumentals of the following album, Secret Life of Plants. (Someone has said that Stevie was lured away by Yamaha, with the DX7 being used for years to come).
A rhythm band, previously used only in live performances, was now being used in the studio, with basses, electric guitars, and the whole works. So you still had the funky layers, but the layers now consisted of a lot of different instruments (like it was in conventional production), rather than all the layers being overdubbed Clavinet, Rhodes, acoustic piano, or combinations of those three instruments. That had created what I call a more "solid" sound, and along with the Arp & Moog backing, made it a truly one-of-a-kind "refined" production.
The Clavinet and Rhodes are still around, though used much less and not played in quite the same way. (Compare "All Day Sucker" with "Superstition". The former is only about two layers, and the top layer pretty much follows the beat). Funky songs like "Black Man", which would have had the solid Clavinet statement under the old production, now consists of a mix of guitars and synths.
"I Wish" and "Sir Duke", which were the hits that in the previous albums would have also had the Clavinet out front, were now covered by the Rhodes along with basses, and synths.
So when you listen to that breakdown of Superstition, imagine the top layer being replaced by a Fender Rhodes (which is not quite as "funky" as a Clav), another layer replaced by a muted guitar, another one by bass, then perhaps a synth, and then that's about it. Half as many layers, all different instruments. That's basically the "I Wish" production. Even on live versions of Superstition, Stevie can of course only play one Clavinet at a time, so all of those other layers are covered by the guitar band, and the song sounds a bit less distinctive.
Swenson reports that the change of engineers and other factors greatly affected the production of Songs, and this can be heard in both the lyrics and the vocals themselves. Just compare "Evil" with "Saturn". Same basic instruments (including the Moog horns), and even same powerful statement, but Evil has more genuine emotion, and vocal melody, while in Saturn, the words are more monotone, and stretched out as well. (This song has a 1975 copyright, and could well be the first one fully engineered by Olazabal. Likewise, the last song credited to him; 1990's "Keep Our Love Alive", has a very similar sound, but with synth strings replacing the Moog. It's like he began and ended on the same note! Also, Saturn was originally a totally different love song, as will be mentioned again. So you can tell that there was a big shift going on between '74 and '76).
Secret Life of Plants seemed to be a nice step back in the right direction, with the nice Rhodes harmony in songs like "Power Flower" and "Send One Your Love"; "Come Back as a Flower", which has the "You Are the Sunshine/Smile Please" rhythm and percussion, and the piano ballads and even the acoustic guitar-produced "Outside My Window" being simpler and evoking the previous style. "Venus Flytrap and the Bug" even has a Moog horn with a voicebagged "bug" character, over a jazzy piano and bass. The majority of the album is highly synthesized, and sometimes weird sounding instrumentals and a few "native language" songs. Even so, this album seems like the more natural "missing link" between the TONTO and Olazabal eras.
On the TONTO side, Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta also seems like a link, with some new synths behind the orchestra in songs like "Spinning Around" (evoking the upcoming "Songs" and "Secret Life" sounds), and the closing track "Universal Sound of the World" being like the "Grand Finale" of the TONTO era (though the prominant horns are real and not Moogs, though they have the same effect), even though the album came out a couple of months before Fulfillingness. (So that album's "Please Don't Go" was actually the closing track of the period, and also seemed to make a statement for the end of that contract as suggested by Swenson). The transition would have been smoother if the order was Fulfillingness - Innervisions - Stevie Presents Syreeta - Secret Life of Plants - Songs in the Key of Life.
Entering the 80's the Clavinet, listed in a couple of songs in Hotter than July is buried under all the other instruments, electric bass now being added! Also now, the real orchestras even came back on "Rocket Love", and later on, in "Do I Do", and in almost every album afterward. "Cash In Your Face" sounds the closest to the classic funky sound (particularly of "Maybe Your Baby"), but the Clavinet line is replaced by electric guitars (along with a Rhodes). The "Superstition"-like "Did I Hear You Say You Love Me", and the "Maybe Your Baby"-like "Frontline" use rock style guitars.
To get an example of the change in the production style; the concert version of "Master Blaster" that would appear 15 years later on the Natural Wonder live performance album had a richer harmonic structure the studio original lacked. The original was basically just the electric bass riff, pretty much following the percussion. When I used to hear it on the radio, I first thought it was a real reggae song by a reggae band. The remake had whole or half-note arpeggios (and in whatever that synth he was using to replace the Clav in all the songs in that concert), alternating in the bars; giving it a "fuller" sound, evoking the TONTO era.
Also missing were many vocal effects; most notably the background "echo" used in many songs. The most prominent example being in "They Won't Go When I Go", when a line says "for them, there is a resting place", and then you hear a layered background overdub of Stevie repeating "there is a resting place!" I have been focusing mostly on instruments, but this was also a big part of the TONTO era sound!
In "Superwoman", the chorus mentions "everything going through your head", and on one line, you have "your filthy head" thrown inbetween. "Looking For Another Love" has "searching, searching..." behind a portion of a later verse. "Maybe Your Baby" and "Tuesday Heartbreak" are full of these. But after TONTO, this was almost completely gone.
The original version of "Ribbon in the Sky" did not have this, but Joedeci's remake in the 90's did, at the end ad-lib portion, much in the vein of the end of "I Believe". This song also had great vocal descending notes beneath "[what has been] must never end" in the final verse, and background echos of "[for]ever" in the pause at the beginning of the final chorus, followed by the repeating chorus and ad-libs taking turns switching from the background to the forefront. Then, it completely changes the entire scale for the fadeout (which the Joedeci song's fading vocals resembled).
As all these vocal techniques had a great "filler" effect, many later songs without them had what I call a "dry" feel. Also, there is a video clip of Margouleff and Cecil explaining how they used to coax emotion out of Stevie, further polishing the songs. It took me years to figure out many of these little nuances that changed the sound. But it further goes to show Stevie's genius at its peak!
It was with "Do I Do", (his last really smash hit, which closed out the pre-digital era) that I became really interested in Stevie Wonder (who previously was just a distant childhood memory by that time). It was shortly afterward, that I began buying all the albums, and noticing the change over the years.
In 1984, the sound went completely digital all across the industry, and the Rhodes was replaced by the digital electric piano (which had a more "bright" sound, with a sharper "attack", almost like a vibraphone to some extent), the Clav was gone for good, and basically a whole range of new sounds, mixed with electric guitar sometimes, made up the music. The acoustic piano still hung around; usually by itself in ballads, and orchestras remained to give songs that sentimental effect. But even they began to greatly diminish. Synth string sounds continued to be improved and became more popular as well.
A new synth bass is what took the place of the Clavinet on songs like "Woman In Red", but as it did sound a little bit like the Moog bass at times, it came to good use, especially in the following studio album "In Square Circle". Other times, a "wire" style synth evoked the old Clav, as in "Spiritual Walker" and "Skeletons". "My Eyes Don't Cry" and to a lesser extent, "I'll Be In Your Corner" had a more realistic Clavinet sound, though with the mixing, it is often drowned out by the synthesizers. Stevie's piano ballads in the 80's usually had heavy, non-Moog basses and real or synth strings. ("With Each Beat of My Heart" is the primary exception).
Of the albums of this period (we're up to Contract 4 now), In Square Circle did bring back some effects that had been lacking. While the opening hit, "Part Time Lover" did nothing for me, I practically flipped when I heard the rest of the album played on the radio in my college dorm room, upon its release. The second track, "I Love You Too Much" brings back the background echo in parts of the chorus, along with nice use of the synth bass along with the digital electric piano. "Stranger in The Shore of Love" was similar, and "Never In Your Sun" was a throwback to "Looking for Another Love" (except it had that artificial hip-hop style beat instead of the nice jazzy persussion of the latter song). It also had some vocal echos in the verses. Of all the Olazabal era albums, this was the nicest, and closest to the classic sound, but for some reason is generally criticized by fans. Largely, because of the synthesizers, but they are usually used quite nicely here. In "Spiritual Walkers", I would say they were overdone.
During this time, TONTO-like Moog Theremin sounds were being repopularized by Luther Vandross under the production of Marcus Miller —but ALWAYS with an orchestra accompanying it! (They lacked the Arp, whose sharper sound made the orchestra unnecessary. Stevie's "Blame it On the Sun" was the best example of this. It really sounds almost like an orchestra at times). Other people's music had been using the Moog inbetween, usually a light "flute" style sound, but almost always with orchestras. The David Foster produced "After the Love is Gone" by Earth, Wind & Fire is an example. Another Motown act, the Commodores have both synth and real strings with a Moog on "Just to Be Close To You". (This near universality makes me wonder if the artists were contractually obligated to use the orchestras, which I imagine may have still been employed by the studio. Stevie, with his full creative control was no longer subject to that. Or, maybe that explains why they were used on Syreeta's albums. Nice way to dump them off of his own projects, then!)
The Stevie Wonder written, Quincy Jones produced, Michael Jackson performed "I Can't Help Myself"; has another great set of TONTO-like sounds spoiled by an orchestra. (It was light, and could have easily been covered by synths, in which it would be like "Blame it On the Sun". Stevie really should have kept that one for his own album, though there are two different version of it in different keys peformed by him, likely in tribute to Michael!) Leo Sayer's "When I need You" mixed an almost TONTO-like Moog sound with synth strings.
So then others began using the Moog in the 80's. Keith Sweat's "Make It Last" is probably the most prominent example. This one mixes newer style synth strings with the Moog flute played in a way that evoked the Theremin.
On a side note, though having no Moogs, I also even more recently found what TONTO might have sounded like if Stevie had held on through the disco era. Roberta Flack's '80 album had two songs writteby by Stevie; "You Are My Heaven" (which is a minor hit), and another one, "Don't Make Me Wait Too Long". I had vaguely rememberd the chorus (because of the unique chordal progression between lines), but not the words or verses, and didn't know who did it. But it would for some reason occasionally come up in my memory. I find that this one actually had a demo sung by Stevie himself (which otherwise sounds like the album version), and while it is a conventionally produced disco song (with orchestra, non-Moog bass and Rhodes playing that would resemble the contemporaneous "All I Do"; and Stevie otherwise did not do disco; "A Seed's A Star" from Secret Life of Plants was the closest thing), the layered descending background vocal effect during the chorus ["I never mind waiting; just don't make me wait too long"] is right out of Talking Book! This is another one he should have kept on his albums. If this and "I Can't Help It" had been on Hotter Than July, then it would have been much better. Producer was Eric Mercury and Roberta Flack, and engineers included Olazabal and other unfamiliar names. It's actually the track before the memorable funk hit, the Mtume-produced "Back Together Again").
We got a little taste of the TONTO style again from Stevie, when in 1990, "Feeding off the Love of the Land" was released as part of a "various artists" charity album. It was just an acoustic piano all by itself, but by just the general sound (including the vocal effects), you could tell it was Margouleff and Cecil, who once again appeared as engineers. I was so shocked and happy, after 14 years of the Songs in the Key of Life-type sound. But much later I find it was an old song recorded back around the time of Talking Book, according to Cecil in an interview. (It was also mentioned in a 1975 article, but the title was "Living Off the Love of the Land"). It did fit that same style. And the following year when it was rereleased as a single for the Jungle Fever film, it had bass and strings added! I of course wished it was the TONTO Theremin ensemble instead.
However, while that engineering may or may not have been new, it did sort of herald the beginning of a limited return of TONTO in new productions after all! The soundtrack album for Jungle Fever (on which "Feeding" was left off of) had Cecil return for "additional engineering", and the influence is clearly evident, though this is a modern "digital" age album filled with non-TONTO synths (and an orchestra on a piano ballad). "Fun Day", "If She Breaks Your Heart" and especially "I Go Sailing" are closest to the TONTO era sound. (Including the harmonic and vocal effects, like the background chorus "...through the rivers of my mind" that completes the statement that begins with the title of the latter track). "Each Other's Throat" is the nice funky track, but the Clavinet you hear is actually a sample of "Maybe Your Baby", one of the multilayered Clav powerhouses from Talking Book.
Inbetween, you had a lot of nice songs given to others, such as "On and On" (Elton John and Gladys Knight), and "Why I Feel This Way" (Take 6).
The following album, Cecil is gone again, but Margouleff is back on two songs, both completely synthesized. One of them, "I'm Sorry", was hailed by one reviewer as a "back in the day Stevie bubble gum" type song. It did kind of evoke "I Believe", the closing track of Talking Book. It even had the voice bags TONTO was famous for (which convert the voice to an electronic type sound).
Stevie used these in the first TONTO album, Music of My Mind. As Swenson pointed out, while that album was "dense and brooding", being more "experimental"; the sound was perfected in the "light and airy" Talking Book, and the voice bags were dropped.
In other tracks on this 1995 album, he is really getting back into the "standard" sounds on some songs, like in the first single, "For Your Love". The same with "Taboo To Love", which from an 80's concert video now on Youtube, was originally an interesting jazzy and even classical sounding piano ballad, but now replaced with harp and strings. In the concert that preceded the album, he redid all of his TONTO classics with orchestras replacing the Arp & Moog lines!
The last album (10 years later), he is headlong into the orchestra kick— almost every song! (I'm sure that also makes the albums more expensive to produce, and also for it to take longer to finish, especially when Stevie changes his mind and has to reedit or redo parts of songs). But many of the "funky" features of the classic albums were back, and it was even less synthesized (by now in the internet age, fans were generally complaining about the 80's and 90's sound!) and fans were happy. You had the Fender/Clav/Moog-type bass mix "Sweetest Somebody I know", which took me back to the day I first brought Fulfillingness First Finale (and Music of My Mind) home. Even with the orchestras. ("Passionate Raindrops" had the lite Moog sound, but with the orchestra, and "From the Bottom of My Heart" had it without the orchestra).
So the Moogs were finally back, but not the full TONTO sound. If he doesn't get back with the TONTO engineers, a common synth sound called a "warm pad" is a nice substitute. The best example of this is on the intro to Phyllis Hyman's "Living All Alone". That would have been a nice replacement of the orchestras on songs like Vandross' "Superstar" or "Superman". Stevie's own "Galaxy Paradise" from the late '80s is mostly a warm pad sound, but for some reason, the song does nothing for most fans, myself included (Maybe because it is the lead instrument, rather than a background). The warm pad is also used on several tracks on the late 90's Crossroads Tabernacle produced Christian rap album, No Fairy Tales by the Storytellers. "Shame" with the deep Rhodes sound added really evokes the Talking Book sound. Roberta Flack's late 80's album used similar sounds, such as on "Oasis".
Unreleased transitional material and the conversion of album tracks
"The Future", a song written and recorded under the TONTO team for the Fulfillingness First Finale II (FFFII) project, which eventually was replaced by Songs In the Key of Life under new engineers, was early on set to be on the 2005 album, but then dropped. Cecil said that this should really be released. I always wondered what it sounds like.
Someone shared a .doc copy the article "Stevie Wonder – Writing The Book Of Love" By Johanna and John Hall, Crawdaddy December 1974, where he's discussing FFFII and gave several lines from both it and "Living Off The Love Of the Land" (same words as what was eventually released). "The Future" is really hard to even compare with anything else I can think of at the moment! The lyrical structure for the verses makes me think of "Black Man", like it must be very rapid words; each line has rhyming half lines ("pessimistic"—"statistics", followed by "nations"—"observations"). The chorus seems to be the four line part: "And you’re asking me what will it be...I say the future’s up to you and me...And then you say, ‘Okay but what can I do?’...I say just do the best that you know how to". That sounds more like a ballad and I guess the verses could be a ballad, or it could be an uptempo song with a ballad-like chorus/refrain. So this makes the song all the more mysterious. What instruments would it have used in ptoduction back then?
And I wonder where TONTO would have gone with Stevie had they remained. What would Songs in the Key of Life had been like under them? What would they have done with "Village Ghetto Land" and "Pastime Paradise?" (Though, they did claim "After four albums, we had gone to all the creative places we were going to go to," said Margouleff, "and we were starting to repeat ourselves". http://www.micasamm.com/pages/publications/articles/mojo_0403.htm)
We can get an idea from these clips of songs, from old tapes auctioned off by an engineer, reportedly from material for the FFFII (or "Fulfillingness Last Finale") project:
The latter clearly sounds like it could have been an early version of "Another Star" (he scats, and then sings "everytime you call me --- deep inside your heart" in place of "Through my eyes the light of you is all I see"), yet then it becomes very "You Are the Sunshine"-like. The first one in the first link ("Knocking At Your Door") also has the flowing melody more associated with the 1972 albums than even FFF! It's hard to tell whether the basses used in these are Moog, or acoustic, but the production still bears the distinctive style, so this gives us an idea what would "Songs" could have been like, and it's the same body of material "The Future" was produced in.
[edit: Now with the combination set of TONTO's albums available on Rhapsody (at least for a while), I finally got to hear all the tracks, and both "Tontomotion" and "Cameltrain" use a more realistic sounding string synth. Both of these tracks are from the second album, which is listed with a 1974 UK release, but I read them say it was originally released in 1972. Depending on when it was recorded, they may have added other synths to the TONTO machine. The sound is pretty much the same as what we would hear on the non-TONTO produced "Pastime Paradise" and "Village Ghetto Land". (So those songs could have well sounded the same under TONTO production after all!)
So I'm still kind of surprised Stevie and the Isleys never used the sound, though again, "Blame It On the Sun" comes the closest. Also, reading that TONTO also worked with Billy Preston for his 1975 album, I find the song "I Can't Stand It" which has the more futuristic Arp strings sound].
There is also an early versions of "Saturn" (likely early titled version "Saginaw"; a love song with same piano but no synth, and totally different words; and vocals sounding better and more natural), "If It's Magic" (piano instead of harp) and even "Crying Through the Night" (later digitized for its release in the 80's) from this period. Even though Margouleff said they were at the end of their creativity, Stevie would have found new ways to be creative with the sound, as these songs show. Instead, their work was remixed and gradually diluted away, and as we see evidence of, songs completely rewritten, under the new production.
The instrumental track "Contusions" clearly has their influence: those ascending/descending chords, which seemed to be their signature statement. Though the main melody of the song is an electric guitar. Even Swenson had said earlier live versions were better. You can download one of them, from an early 1974 jam session, at: http://www.theleathercanary.com/2008/04/stevie-wonder-live-at-rainbow-theatre.html. (It starts with mostly drumming and bass playing, and the familiar tune doesn't begin until after 14:00). There is also another one from a show called Musikladen from around the same time. (One of them is probably the same that airs on VH1 from time to time). A more jazzy, less fat guitar (and thus a bit less prominent) is used in these. A final studio album version under TONTO probably would have had the familiar Moog sounds, perhaps the horns, like the instrumental break in "You've Got it Bad Girl", over the guitar. Just as Arps & Moogs were the prominent feature of the TONTO era, electric guitars were very prominent in this next era, engineered by Olazabal. As was mentioned, you hear them in several songs in the early 80's (and this includes "Let's Get Serious"; given to Jermaine Jackson), and then continuing up through "One of a Kind" and "Get It". Afterwards, when Olazabal has left, you don't hear them anymore in that fashion.
The role of personality and a neurological shift
A theory I have as to the radical change in the mid-70's, of both his music and focus, might stem from the accident that almost killed him right around the time Innervisions was released. A log had struck him on the right side of the head. He was probably already working on the projects that would become the next two albums after FFF, and that was when the total shift occurs.
A newer interest of mine is personality theory, both temperament and MBTI type. There is a version of the theory that discusses right and left brain functional perspectives.
Growing up on Talking Book, it aseemed to reflect an Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving (ISTP) perspective. Also, him pragmatically rebelling against the Motown machine when coming of age. What people who discuss type usually assume him to be is Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, Judging (INFJ). Almost the opposite, except for the introversion. The iNtuitive part reflecting his abstract focus (like the "love mentalism" Swenson dismisses from the Songs sleeve notes). Feeling, because of his altruism and general focus on the "humane" side of life, which really surfaced around that time. In 1975, he even considered quitting the business to move to Africa. And "Judging" indicates that the Feeling (which is a "judging" process) is oriented towards the outer world of people and action, rather than an inner code of ethics (though some think he is a Feeling-Perceiver, which fits that latter definition).
Clearly, some cognitive shift was occuring during this period.
He seemed much more "concrete" (focused on tangible reality rather than the meanings of things) and "logical" (focused on the mind more than the heart) before the accident. ISTP and INFJ are actually close, cognitively, using the same functions, though in a different order (One has the S and T out front, and the other has the N and F). P is associated with the right brain, and J with the left brain. So ISTP and INFJ are actually right/left brain alternatives of each other, (called "Supplement"). So the accident apparently shifted him more to the left brain perspective, and hence, him appearing to be an INFJ.
Full treatment on this: http://erictb.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/stevie-wonder-infjistp-analysis/
The other main R&B acts using TONTO: The Isleys
Margouleff and Cecil had remained with the Isleys a bit longer. Their 1975 album pretty much continued the same sound. The 1976 album Harvest For the World had Cecil credited only, but was still pretty much the same, but with less Moogs. After that, he was gone, but the Isleys still pretty much kept most of the sound.
The following album had no Moogs and lacked the edge. There are still nice Rhodes songs such as "Footsteps in the Dark" and "The Pride", but just like on Songs In the Key of Life, without the Moog bass underlying it, and the richer harmonies lacking, something is just missing.
In the 1978 album, the TONTO engineers are not credited, but this one sounds a little bit more like their style with the layered Clavinet ("Fun and Games") or Rhodes sounds ("Groove with You"). Update: the album was just remastered for CD release, and the engineers are John Holbrook and Thomas Mark.
The next album is dry; basically dance beats and little else (this is in the heart of the disco age, and they were focusing on making danceable tracks).
Then entering the 80's, they continue the nice Rhodes sound, but add a very realistic sounding synth string, you can hear on the hit "Don't Say Goodnight". (I thought it was real for years). Engineer: Tom Edmonde. Then, a few albums later, real orchestras are back for the first time since their Motown stint in the 60's!
However, they stick the Between the Sheets album in the middle of this, which definitely sounds like their TONTO albums, complete with Moogs again, and both orchestras and realistic string synths absent! (This site: http://www.legacyrecordings.com/The-Isley-Brothers/Between-The-Sheets.aspx lists F. Bryon Clark as Engineer). Aftwerward they make one last self-produced album, and then hook up with Angela Winbush; the whole time using conventional "digital" style techniques and real orchestras, often.
Other bands with similar techniques
During Stevie and Isleys' TONTO era, Earth, Wind & Fire managed to create a similar production technique in the albums Head to the Sky and Open Our Eyes. In both albums, orchestras were absent, and you had similar harmonic mixtures of Rhodes, acoustic piano, and some Clavinet. (Even the electric guitars often took a back seat to this mix!) The latter album adds Moogs, not sounding quite like TONTO, but having to some extent a similar effect on the title track. Afterwards, the band goes back to a more conventional sound, with the orchestras, more emphasis on electric guitars & bass, etc., but I associate that sound with them more than with Stevie, anyway. They had managed to take the "conventional" techniques and produce a unique funky style of their own with it! They have truly come back to their old sound on recent albums (as fans had been asking for since the electronic 80's), though they, like Stevie, no longer get the airplay. "Modern" songs that remind me of the old TONTO style are 1996-7's "Cruisin" (with the deep rodes harmonies), and 2005's "Liberated" (an instrumental with TONTO-like chordal progressions).
Also beginning during the TONTO era was the "jazz-rock" band Steely Dan. I became familiar with them through the popular 1977 album Aja, which I always did think of as a logical evolution of the techniques the TONTO sound employed. For one, they avoided string orchestras for nearly their whole career. Only two songs, 1974's "Through With Buzz" and the 1978 non-albumed special song "FM" use strings. A few later songs like "Josie" do use synth strings.
"Jazz-Rock" was what I always thought of Talking Book's style as, in addition to the previous two albums to some extent. Think the heavy "rock" of some of the Clavinet tunes, such as "Maybe Your Baby", "Keep On Runnin", and "I Wanna Talk To You", with "Superstition" and "Higher Ground" as rock/funk/R&B crossovers, and "You Are the Sunshine" as the "soft rock"/R&B crossover, along with the jazz of the "Superwoman/You've Got It Bad Girl/Looking For Another Love" trio and "Too High" and "Visions". If Stevie started with "The Jazz-Soul of Little Stevie Wonder", then Talking Book was "The Jazz-Rock of Big Stevie Wonder".
So now as Stevie turned away from jazz-rock (even in the subsequent TONTO albums), to a more stricly R&B (and a more commercialized one at that), here is a band who during that same time moved more toward this unique hybrid. Their whole style was always characterized by chordal changes, which are the harmonic "hooks" that made Stevie's TONTO era productions so nice. Where Stevie largely left a lot of this behind after leaving TONTO, Steely Dan at the same time increasingly perfected theirs, and held onto it to the present. They even have a whole class of chords associated with their sound, called "mu" (Greek letter µ), which shifts the octave for particular notes in the chord, and gives signature songs like "Deacon Blues" their distinctive sound.
They always aimed for a jazz sound, but perhaps to get their first record deal in 1972, adopted a more "rock" and even "country" at times sound. I was well familiar with the first album's hits "Do It Again" and "Reelin' in the Years", but had no idea this was by the same band who would do "Peg" and "Josie". The album's closer, "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again" was the shadow of what was to come, having the rich melodic structure I would associate with both the "Aja" title track, as well as Stevie's 1972 "TONTO" productions! They then began inching to more "jazzy" techniques, using a sort of "You Are the Sunshine" type rhythm a lot on subsequent releases. This you can hear on the following album's "Razor Boy" (which using an acoustic piano, resembles Stevie/Syreeta's "Come Back As a Flower"), and "Your Gold Teeth", using the Rhodes. Most notable is the album closer "King of the World", which has an intrumental break and fadeout using ascending/descending chords done with a Rhodes and a Moog Theremin sound, and thus sounds like it was right off of a Stevie/Syreeta/TONTO album! (The bass chordal progression resembles the Stevie/TONTO song "Take a Little Trip" on Minnie Riperton's album, which is the signature "TONTO" style, though that one doesn't have the Moog sound. So adding the Moog definitely makes it sound all the more like a TONTO production! The chords also somewhat resemble the 1972 Stevie/Syreeta/TONTO-produced Smokey song "We Had A Love So Strong", which does use the Moog. By now [i.e. this edit], being hooked up with Margouleff on Facebook, I actually had to ask if he was involved with SD, and he said he wasn't!)
Opener "Bodhisattva" also fades out on a Moog Theremin sound, over a set of chords that for some reason reminds me of parts of Stevie's "Don't You Worry Bout A Thing". The songs don't really sound alike; but that's the closest thing I can compare it with. The following album adds more jazzy chords and progressions, leading up to their eventual sound. We still have a lot of TONTO-like techniques, such as "Any Major Dude", with its acoustic guitar intro and funky Rhodes chords which sounds like a TONTO/Isleys production you would expect from the same year. Even the orchestras on "Through With Buzz" close the song on a chordal change (and accompanying vocal effect) that greatly resembles Stevie/Syreeta/TONTO, and the song overall sounds like something from one of Syreeta's albums. "Charlie Freak" apparentely has some sort of synth that really sounds like a violin or cello. The closer, "Monkey In Your Soul" also has a funky Rhodes effect in the chorus, and is starting to take on a "Deacon Blues" feel in the chordal descent and horn overlay.
By Aja, the old sounds are out, and it's all jazz-funk. Opener "Black Cow" has a nice Fender-Clavinet combo, and "Aja" has the nice flowing melodies. "Peg" has nice chordal changes, and "Deacon Blues" its nice signature Rhodes chords. They would produce one more album (which includes "Third World Man", which has a "You Are The Sunshine"-like Rhodes composition in the verses with a "You've Got It Bad Girl"-like chorus harmonic progression), and then break up, with co-leader Donald Fagen going solo, continuing the sound with songs such as "IGY" (which I originally thought was Stevie when I heard it on the radio!) and the next track on the album, "Greenflower Street", with a Clav/Fender mix. The band would come back together two decades later in the new Millennium, and the leaders continue producing solo releases, with a few TONTO harmony-like songs such as "Almost Gothic" and "Jack of Speed" (2000) and "Miss Marlene" (2012).
TONTO's big 80's break
I wondered how TONTO would have made the transition into the 80's and to the digital age, and then I find that that weird 'new wave' Devo group's 1980 album Freedom of Choice, with the hit "Whip It" was produced by Margouleff. The TONTO machine even resided at the band's headquarters for awhile! The song does sound like a logical evolution of the sound of Stevie and the Isleys' early 70's albums, with the synth bass riffs (though as a punk rock album, the Moog Theremin and other sounds wouldn't have fit in it). So then, Margouleff had gone to new creative places after all! (Now if Stevie had just stuck around for a few more years...!) I try to imagine what the contemporaneous Hotter than July might have sounded like with that production style. Just as Stevie and the Isleys with TONTO were light years ahead of everyone else in the 70's (who were still using basically 60's electrophonic technology), Devo's album was already into the almost completely digital style that Stevie and most others would pick up four years later.
So Stevie's "Upset Stomach" single from the movie "The Last Dragon" (1985) would probably be an example of what it would have been like. It also was completely synthesized, yet done in a very good, funky way, combining a punk feel with TONTO-era style funk. Even the bridge vocals ("blues that go away") are right out of Innervisions! This should have been on In Square Circle (released around the same time); and give "Part Time Lover" to Luther! (who was in the backgrounds of that song). Or give it to Dionne Warwick instead of "With A Touch of My Love".
The TONTO sound (especially for Stevie):
•Solid Clavinet, Fender Rhodes, or acoustic piano composition
•Rich harmonies and melodies and funky riffs with these instruments
•Moog Bass undertones
•Arp & Moog ensemble instead of string orchestra (or realistic string synths)
•Other Moog sounds (horn, flute, etc)
•"Echoing" overdubbed background vocal effects
•Truer and wider range of emotions in vocals
MOTOWN I (First Contract; "little Stevie"): 1962-7
MOTOWN II (First Contract; more creative input): 1968-71
TONTO: 1972-4 (Second Contract)
OLAZABAL Electrophonic: 1975-83 (Third Contract)
OLAZABAL Digital: 1984-90 (Fourth Contract?)
Why do I care so much about this? Why scrutinize the man's music so much?:
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